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Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Many thanks to David for inviting me to be on the Editorial Board and giving me the task of writing the editorial for this issue! I am going to continue in the vein David has established by commenting on wider issues of concern to the manufacturing community: discussing a possible reason for the skills shortage in our area.
Currently running in the UK is the local version of US “The Apprentice” the television programme which began with Donald Trump putting a group of keen young business people through various tasks, eliminating one each week until finally his new “apprentice” emerged. There have been several seasons of this programme and as far as I can tell, none or very few of the supposedly “cream” of business youth have any involvement with manufacturing. They all tend to be in sales, marketing, finance or consulting, yet a reason for their dismissal can be that they are “just a salesman”. Each week the task makes for good television because the teams are not very good as teams and also not that skilled at actually doing anything, or for that matter “making” something. Pontificating about the competence of others, what they'd hope to do is the order of the day. It irritates me that even a limited application of manufacturing concepts would help them succeed, although almost certainly the entertainment value would go down!
Thrift (2000), who was recently appointed Vice Chancellor of the University of Warwick, wrote about the characteristics of “fast” organisations. Speed and responsiveness is supposed to spur innovation and creativity, but he questions the sustainability of these forms of organisation in human terms. He argues that there is extensive use of imagery to convey excitement, and we can see that as a device in companies and products. Companies use their logos, corporate communication documents, the walls and setting of their buildings to generate affinity and interest. The “aestheticisation” of products and the materials we use to promote them is also an example.
“Fast” organisations create space for “serious play” – interaction between people in such a way that promotes creativity – and possibilities for this to happen in multiple locations through the use of information technology. The cumulative effect of this is to create the impression of energy and excitement, which attracts the good recruit.
Relating these ideas to our area, for the most part I do not think we use these points to good effect. With the exception of excellent introductory texts packed full of imagery, for the most part the images we use in our papers and research are not particularly attractive or engaging to an increasingly number-phobic society. Sets of equations appeal to a minority, and undersell the complexity and challenge of day-to-day manufacturing, which has far wider possibilities, for example, perfecting the algorithm in the ERP system might not address the lack of parts on the shelf.
Although discussing reifications to abstract models might constitute a form of “play” to some colleagues, and our UK grant funding body has created a “sandpit” for ideas generation, the best ideas come from being immersed in manufacturing sites, using and changing our theories to improve something for tangible effect. Too often part of the process is left out because we are caught up in our own “fast organisation” which currently seems to require quantity of publications, and it is possible to churn out articles which say very little and engage no-one in particular.
We can use information technology to “tweak” and test ideas, and keep them in the virtual world, but we can use this technology to build better, stronger links with manufacturing to stop over simplifying complex problems. We can use it to bring the potential recruits closer to manufacturing intricacies, which we think are challenging and every bit as inherently satisfying as marketing and human resources.
If we continue to ignore the day-to-day exigencies and ways of engaging people successful elsewhere, we might well be acting like “The Apprentice” candidates, performing what we know, and ultimately destroying the career ladder we devote so much time to climbing!
Lynne BaxterUniversity of York, UK
Thrift, N. (2000), “Performing cultures in the new economy”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 90 No. 4, pp. 674-92.